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Go Shopping in London, Have History for Lunch Highsnobiety

This article is part of Not In London, a multi-media celebration of the English cultural capital. With parties, a pop-up store, brand collaborations, and more, check out everything that’s happening right here.

It’s worth getting lunch at Harrods for the sole purpose of looking up. The first thing you’ll notice is the mosaic: A massive spread of hunting scenes made from bright glazed terracotta designed by the architect William James Neatby. Look closer and you’ll see a brass rail with several hooks running underneath — this is where they used to hang the turkeys. By the time you’re finished with your meal, you’ll have soaked up a heavy dose of English retail history just by inspecting the ceiling.

Before this room was a fashionable lunch pitstop at London’s most famous department store, it was called the Meat & Fish Hall. The posh set would buy their Christmas dinners here, starting in 1903. But Harrods is even older, technically founded in 1834, so old that it keeps an archivist on staff, Sebastian Wormell. “Harrods began as a food shop,” he says. “We didn’t really start to sell fashion until 1901.”

The Harrods Food Hall captures a longstanding, unappreciated aspect of the city’s fashion scene. London is one of — perhaps the most — architecturally exciting places to shop in the world. That’s not because of what’s new (though there’s plenty new to celebrate). Rather it’s the opposite. London is old, and its unique commitment to history and preservation makes it a beautiful place to live, explore, and buy trousers. 

Harrods
Bedford Lemere Ltd / Courtesy of Harrods Company Archive, Press

For over 100 years, London’s stores have managed to evolve dramatically while retaining their essential DNA. This is most evident in the city’s globally renowned department stores, Harrods, Selfridges, and Liberty London most famous among them. All these places laid the foundation of the modern retail space — they sell beautiful things in beautiful places that compel people to come, stay, and shop. And miraculously, they all survived the Blitz (though a John Lewis was destroyed and Harrods suffered some damage to its exterior). Today, all these department stores are Grade II* listed buildings, meaning they enjoy special protections due to their historical and architectural significance (you need special permission from government planning authorities to make changes to them). There are now 1,387 Grade II* buildings in greater London, which all contribute to the city’s distinct architectural flavor.

London’s storefronts survived bombs and were protected from demolition in the 20th century, but something worse came for them: cars. As more people started driving, high streets started withering — why walk to the butcher, the baker, and hat and boot makers when you could just throw everything in the boot of your Saab? “The increase in private car ownership since the Second World War has done more to transform the shopping environment than anything else,” writes Kathryn A. Morrison in English Shops and Shopping: An Architectural History. Old shops and major department stores both suffered, as high street tenancy declined and businesses went bankrupt. 

Harrods
Courtesy of Harrods Company Archive , Press

The stores that endured were those that could adapt. In fact, they might just stand as exemplars of surviving and thriving by finding ways to balance change with heritage. Wormell found an old advert in the Harrods archives with the tagline first written in 1928: “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.” 

***

London is old, and its fashion industry and architectural history are woven together across centuries. Take the most famous fashion street in the city: Savile Row. Synonymous with fine tailoring and quintessentially English, it’s where generations of kings and James Bonds have gotten their suits made. It’s also a neat time capsule of a particular moment in English architectural history. Savile Row is a part of the Burlington Estate and was designed under the influence of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, known in his time as the “Architect Earl.” Burlington was a devout fan of the great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who designed symmetrical buildings with a classical Greco-Roman style. Under Burlington’s influence, English Palladiansim became the must-have mode for a fancy new country house in the early 1700s. Walking down Savile Row today, you can still sense a bit of Venice — a neat connection between English and Italian tailoring.

Fashion’s built environment wasn’t only shaped by lords. Consider Brick Lane, the best neighborhood for vintage shopping. Today, you can find nearly anything secondhand, from the sprawling sellers like ATIKA at the southern end to the curated designer finds of Nordic Poetry off its northern edge. But the neighborhood has been home to the garment industry since the 17th century, when French Huguenots fleeing persecution settled down in Spitalfields. Many of these immigrants were skilled silk weavers, and they brought new French styles to the London ball scene. They opened mixed-use shops in the area with storefronts on the ground floor and weaving rooms up above. We’re talking 1600s here, so everything was made by hand with natural light. To accommodate, the upper floors of these buildings had wide, beautiful windows that allowed people to work as long as the sun was up. They’re called weavers’ windows, and you can still spot a few if you look closely.

Shops on Savile Row, known as the center for quality men’s suits and tailoring, 1965.
Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

Two men stand on a street corner near advertising billboards around Brick Lane in East London, 1960.
Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

In some places you can still buy clothes in centuries-old storefronts. Most of the tailors on Savile Row have bounced between locations in the past 200 years, but you can still buy a hat from Lock & Co. behind the green door on 6 St. James’s Street, where they’ve been doing business since 1765 (the business was founded in 1676). They invented the bowler and served British luminaries like Admiral Lord Nelson and David Beckham (pick your style icon). Right next door is the lovely wooden façade of John Lobb — the boot makers moved into their current location in 1962 but have maintained a presence on St. James’s since 1880. 

The crown jewels of London retail architecture, however, didn’t emerge until the turn of the 20th century. These are the city’s world-famous department stores: global fashion destinations like Harrods, Selfridges, and Liberty’s. London didn’t invent the department store, or at least doesn’t have sole claim. Depending on whom you ask, that honor goes to Tokyo or Paris (neither such bad places to shop). But London’s stately department stores have become essential landmarks of the city.

According to one expert, “The heyday of the department store in London, from the architectural point of view, was the 1890s through to the 1950s.” That expert is Charles Hind, chief curator for the Royal Institute of British Architects. RIBA maintains its own library in Fitzrovia, but Hind’s office is in the Victoria & Albert Museum in Knightsbridge, a few floors above the current Chanel exhibit. 

These places served a broader function when they were founded than they do now. Today, Selfridges sells luxury fashion and John Lewis sells homewares, but in the 19th century, department stores were the Amazon of their time, aspiring to sell everyone everything. “Harrods prided itself that you could get anything. If you want an elephant, Harrods would find a way of supplying you with an elephant,” says Hind.

Selfridges on Oxford Street, 1927–1930.
Courtesy of Selfridges, Press

Not to make anyone think too hard about capitalism, but these stores were only possible because the Industrial Revolution and British Empire had transformed London’s economy. “The growth of the leisure middle classes spurred on by the American approach embodied by [Harry] Gordon Selfridge meant that there was great competition to attract customers to buy a wide range of goods in impressive surroundings,” says Hind. “Going to one of the stores was something of an event. Architecture was seen as part of that.” 

Determined architecture buffs can find a range of styles if they’re willing to dig deep. Hind calls out the old Bourne & Hollingsworth (which went out of business in 1983) building at Oxford and Berners as a solid example of Wren Revival, and the Peter Jones on Sloane Square stands as the sole modernist entry to London’s department store canon. But Harrods, Selfridges, and Liberty’s are three mandatory stops, city-block scale buildings where you can properly absorb fashion and architectural history while you shop.

Harrods is undeniably the most famous of London’s department stores. It opened in Knightsbridge in 1849, but the current building was completed in 1905 after the original store burned down in 1883. The building is known for its distinctive terracotta façade, which Wormell says was chosen to make the building stand out: “You can’t really miss it!” The material had a functional purpose, too. “Remember, 19th-century London was a smokey place,” Wormell adds. Industrial Revolution, Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” and all that. “Until the 1970s, all the Portland stone buildings in London were practically black. Terracotta could be kept clean.”

Originally Harrods was a mixed-use building: shopping on the lower floors, luxury apartments above. The cornice running around the exterior marks the divide, and if you walk through the upper floors, you can almost imagine the transition from a hallway into someone’s living room. The ornate doorway on Hans Road isn’t a functional entrance anymore, but it used to be the door for residents. As the store grew, the flats were converted into retail spaces; now Harrods dominates its section of Knightsbridge.

Neatby did the Meat Hall, but the store’s lead architect was Charles William Stephens. “He’s oddly obscure,” according to Wormell, an underappreciated forefather of London’s built environment. A commercial architect during the Edwardian period, he also designed the department store Harvey Nichols, Claridge’s, the ultra-fancy Mayfair hotel where well-heeled tourists pay £100 for afternoon tea, and several Mayfair residences. Mayfair and Knightsbridge look the way they do largely due to his influence.

The Liberty entrance on Regent Street, October 19, 1966.
H. J. Allen / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

Liberty London department store atrium, 2018.
effrey Greenberg / Education Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images, Press

If Harrods set the standard for the London department store, Selfridges disrupted it. Founded in 1909, the store imported a distinctly American sensibility to London. Harry Gordon Selfridge was a larger-than-life character — see the 2013 series Mr. Selfridge — who brought architect Daniel Burnham with him from Chicago. Burnham was already famous for his work on the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, designing the so-called “White City,” and by the time of his death his architecture firm was the largest in the world. Known for his Beaux-Arts buildings, he designed stately, decorated structures — something evident when you take one look at Selfridges, which the classic Guide to the Architecture of London calls “London’s grandest shop façade.” Those columns! They flex.

From its debut, Selfridges made a splash. The Draper’s Record, a fashion trade magazine of the period, covered the opening with the headline, “The Battle of the Trade Giants,” immediately pitting Selfridge’s American sales philosophy against the more traditional English style embodied by Harrods. Selfridge was flashy, commercial, and successful. He ran showy promotions that brought shoppers in and moved product out, like hanging the first airplane to cross the English Channel from the ceiling. He also introduced several retail innovations that are staples of the modern department store, like a rooftop restaurant and a bargain basement. Selfridges is one of the first stores that toed the line between shopping destination and theme park, “basically saying come to Selfridges and spend the day,” explains Hind.

Derek Nicholls, an assistant at Liberty London, August 1973.
Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

Liberty’s is something altogether different, completed 15 to 20 years after Harrods and Selfridges. Its founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (the store is named for him, not, like, freedom), made his name importing ornate textiles from around the world that established the Art Nouveau style in England, rooted in decorative florals and lavish Baroque architecture. But while Liberty’s fashion was modern, the building completed in 1924 is designed in the retrospective style of Tudor Revival. This store is plainly inspired by the traditional Elizabethan aesthetic: It’s a giant cottage on Regent Street.

Nostalgia is literally built into Liberty’s: The timber for the construction was reclaimed from decommissioned Royal Navy ships. Hind suggests the building reflects “the twilight of empire.” “Essentially, they were using 19th-century ships, which takes you back to Waterloo, Triumph of Britain, Napoleon, and turning them into an Elizabethan building.” Today, Liberty’s is arguably the most famous example of Tudor Revival in the world, an architectural peek into the English psyche circa 1920.

***

Tradition, nostalgia, or whatever you choose to call it, London’s commitment to its architectural history can present a challenge. The natural evolution of cities (and brands) grinds up against the need to protect heritage and the environment. Take last summer, when plans to demolish the Marks & Spencer flagship on Oxford Street became a flashpoint in architectural and political circles. M&S wanted to knock down its building and replace it with a new 10-story hub, and got approval for the plan from the Westminster City Council and London mayor Sadiq Khan. Queue outcries and op-eds from preservationists, who argued the building should be adapted instead of destroyed. Arguments made it all the way to the secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who pulled the plug on the plan. Now, M&S is taking the issue to court.

In parts of the world where retail development is a fast-changing free-for-all, from China to the United States, all this fuss is baffling. M&S is basically a superior version of Target (not a diss, reader — Target slaps and M&S slaps harder). Why are we worked up over one chain retail building, a spot where you can pick up curtains, fresh white tees, and a perfectly adequate coronation chicken sandwich? 

The front of a Marks & Spencer store in Holloway, 1914.
(Marks & Spencer via Getty Images, Press

It’s because the Oxford Street M&S, like so many retail buildings in London, is much more than a Target on Fifth Ave. It’s a 1929 Art Deco building called Orchard House that survived WWII. And on our rapidly warming planet, there’s an urgent need to preserve what we have and limit the hefty carbon footprint of new construction. All that said, though, 16 percent of the shops on Oxford Street, one of the main commercial roads in London, are sitting empty. 

Now, retail spaces are facing down newer, 21st-century challenges. Brands are reexamining the purpose of physical locations in a world where digital shopping is the norm and sustainability is an omnipresent concern. This isn’t specific to London. Whether it’s SSENSE opening a brick and mortar store in Toronto, Dover Street Market expanding into Singapore, or Highsnobiety opening a flagship in Berlin, everyone is figuring out what it means to be a Real Store in 2024. 

Flexibility is a necessity. With a ceaseless stream of collaborations, pop-ups, and new collections, shops need to be able to add and adapt quickly enough to interest customers used to a digital pace. That’s not easy, but London’s retail spaces have arguably always been good at it. The buildings were “designed to be permanent, but at the same time, the retail spaces below those high ceilings were clearly intended to be very flexible,” says Hind. This has allowed for some exciting interior design and installation work, like David Adjaye’s Valextra concession at Harrods, or Zaha Hadid’s Wonder Wall exhibit at Selfridges. It’s also led to some missteps — the less said of Harrods’ brief Egyptian period, the better.

Pedestrians outside the newly expanded Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street, October 14, 1970.
Peter King / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

Matt Smith, co-founder of design studio Shed, has recently done work with Harrods on its shoe salon and toy department, as well as iconic British brands like Barbour and Hunter (not to mention Prada, Miu Miu, and others). Shed specializes in retail design, and Smith is an expert in, as he puts it, “environments as extensions of brand spirit.” The trick to working in iconic heritage spaces is to treat tradition as a starting point, not a be-all-end-all. “We use the backdrop of tradition in order to prepare these worlds,” he says. “The shell of the building, of the space, was very much homage, but what that allowed was a tension between that and these insertions where you could tell stories.”

He also notes a few brands that have set new standards for retail architecture around the world and influenced the London scene. Niketown was a game changer. Before then, “retail was very old school, and suddenly we got these cathedrals, brand manifestations that were more than just a billboard,” he says. Prada and Balenciaga broke new ground, the former with its 20-year relationship with starchitect Rem Koolhaas and the latter with the industrial chic interiors debuted in its London flagship. Dover Street Market has done an excellent job defining a brand aesthetic that speaks to its particular cities: The London and Los Angeles DSMs have radically different aesthetics but maintain a luxury sensibility that feels unique to their brand. And “Selfridges have been really good ambassadors for design,” Smith adds. That’s most evident in the store’s sleek, new eastern entrance on Duke Street, designed by the Pritzker-winning architect David Chipperfield.

Union Jack flags and bunting in Old Spitalfields Market, 1928.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Press

But the biggest changes to London’s retail architecture in recent years didn’t happen to stores — they happened in different kinds of spaces altogether. As part of the massive redevelopment of King’s Cross, Thomas Heatherwick converted the old Victorian coal drops (and former rave sites) into an outdoor shopping complex. King’s Cross was developed by the same people behind Hudson Yards, the maligned New York development where Heatherwick dropped the giant honeycomb vase of a tourist attraction called the Vessel. But while New Yorkers groan at the mention of the massive new development on the Hudson River, King’s Cross and Coal Drops Yard are surprisingly vibrant, a welcome place to wander while one of your friends waits in line at the Dishoom. And south of the Thames, Battersea Power Station has been converted into an impressive new mall. It’s an industrial cathedral that may prove as enduring as any of London’s famous department stores.

This isn’t limited to giant development sites. Back in Spitalfields, the basement of the old Truman Brewery houses Brick Lane Vintage Market, a great secondhand bazaar where you can find the perfect old Burberry trench for your English cosplay fantasies. It’s home to Unknown Vintage, the best place in London to find vintage Yohji. And throughout the city, you can see small storefronts showing off the history of their buildings. Long before people bought clothes at the Officine Generale in Soho, they bought rifles.

DSM London
Courtesy of Dover Street Market, Press

Repurposing buildings in this way for something other than what it was originally intended is called adaptive reuse. It’s not a new concept, but it’s become more and more prominent as brands and customers alike have placed greater emphasis on sustainability. Construction accounts for 37 percent of global CO2 emissions. Adaptive reuse encourages us to capitalize on the embodied carbon that’s already fossilized in the built environment. If we want to protect the planet, it makes sense to do more with what we have instead of rebuilding what already works. These retail sites provide proof of concept for an architectural philosophy we urgently need in every city. And it’s nothing new — adaptive reuse has arguably been de rigueur in London for a century.

Put even simpler, great buildings last, and buildings that last are good for cities and the people who live in them. “If you build something that’s original that’s as good as the fabric that it’s been built into, it should have longevity, and that’s the biggest green argument, surely,” Smith says. Enduring architecture is sustainable architecture.

There’s a powerful lesson in that for any 21st-century brand, too, which goes beyond sustainability. At a time when more and more people shop online, London’s retail architecture is a historical testament and current use case for what good architecture can do. Today you can find the old and the modern coexisting in a way that makes shopping feel like a pampering, an education, and an exploration. That’s as good a reason to shop in the physical world as it was in 1903. Come in, spend the day, try something on.

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